Anthropological Accounts

Up to the 1980s anthropologists' incidental references to homosexuality were typically no more detailed than those of explorers, missionaries, or traders. Ford and Beach (1951) compiled and quantified some of this information from other cultures, and throughout the 1950s and 1960s the Human Relations Area Files busily indexed accounts from hundreds more. Most accounts were brief, and often ambiguous, but by the late 1960s cross-cultural researchers were able to use statistical analyses to examine psychological and other theories about male homosexuality.

By the 1980s the gay liberation movement had made it possible for Herdt (1981) to initiate a new age in anthropology in which fieldwork was dedicated primarily to homosexuality. At much the same time the social historian, Michel Foucault, published his influential History of Sexuality (French edition, 1978; English translation, 1980), making the study of homosexuality one of the central themes of academic research.

Foucault argued that prior to the 19th century people may have talked about homosexual acts, but there was no notion of the "homosexual" as a separate social category. For some of his followers this meant that "homosexuals" themselves did not exist until very recently when they were socially "constructed." Other scholars pointed out that the lack of a category does not mean that "homosexuals" did not exist, any more than the lack of a concept for "gene" means that genes did not exist prior to Mendel. Still other scholars went further and tried to show that most societies did, indeed, have concepts for "homosexual" that, in essence, were the same everywhere. Thus was born the great "essentialist-constructivist" debate that permeated gender studies throughout the 1980s and 1990s and resulted in far richer descriptions of homosexuality in different cultures (DeCecco & Elia, 1993).

Attempts to reconcile our knowledge of cross-cultural variation with studies on the biology of homosexuality clarified a need to make greater distinctions with regard to what is explained, whether homosexual behaviors, identities, or desires. Several recent studies have once again used cross-cultural statistical studies to test some of these ideas.

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